Ralph, Captain Emiritus–An Alzheimer’s Transition Moment

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For as long as I’ve known him, Ralph’s love of  boats and boating pretty much summed up his identity:

A lover of the outdoors.    A sportsman who preferred active participation in physical activity to watching from his couch.     A competitor who found competing against himself (or a fish) as rewarding as competing against others.    A problem-solver whose knack for fixing  machinery matched his love of tinker.    A perfectionist who kept his gear shipshape.    A leader who reveled in being captain of his crew.

Early in our marriage, as soon as he had a little extra spending money, Ralph bought his first boat, a small daysailer. I was never a boater and I remember at least one miserable ride in the early days of my first pregnancy. Then he traded up for a racing sailboat he named HARD RAIN after the Dylan song—apropos since every time I was dragged onboard, not often,  a storm showed up too.  For years Ralph sailed almost every weekend, frequently both Saturday and Sunday, with my close friends as his crew, while I stayed home with our toddler(s); if you think you catch a whiff of  lingering resentment on my part, you might be right. But boy, Ralph enjoyed himself. He always came home whistling with a story to a tell

Nevertheless, around the time we moved to the farm, he sold the sailboat–a matter of distance and weekend farm chores. But in the early nineties we started spending time on the Forgotten Coast, that still unspoiled stretch of Northwest Florida . Ralph being Ralph, we soon owned a lot with a house trailer near a boat ramp. Ralph bought a used skiff with a motor that seemed to die a lot, at least when I was around. I hated that boat. Then he found his beloved Paper Moon, a boat he could maneuver in both shallow streams and the sometimes rough waves of Apalachicola Bay. We moved to a piece of land with a dock on the bay and a garage apartment, but no actual house. By then Ralph and some pals had formed a Fishing Club that met for frequent “tournaments” although active participation dwindled over time to mainly Ralph and his even more obsessive first mate The–Other-Ralph.

Then our daughter introduced us to the new man in her life. Ralph, ever distrustful of her various would-be suitors, accepted this one immediately for a simple reason: he was a serious fisherman, a fly fisherman no less. Fly Fisherman also hit it off with The-Other-Ralph.  The three started fishing together and Fly Fisherman willingly took on more and more responsibility for the less fun tasks like prepping the boat, organizing the lunch, and cleaning afterwards.

Over the last few years Ralph, who used to stay out on the water for ten hours straight whatever the weather, began coming home for lunch after a couple of hours, then finding reasons not to go back out in the afternoon with the others. By last spring when The-Other-Ralph’s family and ours gathered for a week of beach and boat, my Ralph found reasons not to fish at all—the heat was bothering him, he had a stomachache. Fly Fisherman ended up taking The-Other-Ralph and his family members out on the boat without Ralph. Afterwards Fly Fisherman cleaned and made repairs as well.

Since then Ralph has not stepped foot on the boat. When I suggested trips to Apalachicola he was less than enthusiastic. We’d get down there and he might cast his line from the dock but he would avoid even visiting the garage where the boat is stored. On a visit last fall, my daughter was dismayed to find the garage in disrepair with mouse droppings and nibbles on the seats.

Ralph’s boating days were clearly over. Still, if he could not quite admit that the boat had become a responsibility he didn’t need and could not longer handle, I wasn’t going to force the issue. And the idea of selling such an essential part of Ralph’s identity was an anathema. (Also daunting since I’d be the one in charge.) So what to do?

With Ralph, The-Other-Ralph and Fly Fisherman about to have milestone birthdays, although thirty years apart, my daughter had a suggestion.

Ralph looked at me askance when I mentioned the possible birthday present. “What if I want to use it?”

“You’ll get Fly Fisherman to take you out.”

The more we talked it over—and believe me we talked it over many times a day, often repeating the same exact sentences—the more Ralph liked the idea. No, loved the idea. Once our two sons, who have no interest in boats, and The-Other-Ralph gave their enthusiastic blessing, Ralph became gleefully obsessed with giving the boat to Fly Fisherman.

Here was his out–a  way to acknowledge his loss of interest, not to mention stamina and capability,  without losing dignity. He embraced as his own choice the possibility of keeping Paper Moon in the family while handing over the actual responsibility. He told everyone that he’d decided to give the boat to Fly Fisherman. The problem became making sure Ralph didn’t spill the beans about what we wanted to be a birthday surprise, but somehow the word did not get back to Fly Fisherman.

Last week, Ralph sent a birthday card to Fly Fisherman with a photograph of  Paper Moon on the cover and a short, funny note inside  i explaining n his own words that he was turning over the enclosed boat title.

He signed it, then had a thought and added a PS.

I still expect to be addressed as Captain when aboard.”

I breathed a sigh of relief both for the smooth transition and the proof that Ralph was still Ralph.

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13 thoughts on “Ralph, Captain Emiritus–An Alzheimer’s Transition Moment

  1. Choice, we always want choice, especially as we age, whether or not we have MCI. This is such an important example of that — also, that it can take more time, more conversation whatever the age or individual’s state of mind. So often time is at a premium and dictating the result seems easier.

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    1. Thanks for this comment. You have made me think about choice. Glancing at this quickly on my phone I misread “want”–thought it said “have.” We don’t always have choice obviously. And sometimes I have not exactly wanted it–thought it would be easier to let someone else decide for me because choice means taking responsibility. But that’s also why it is so important to value choice. The power to make our own choice, right or wrong, is part of what gives us self-respect.I see that in myself all the time. You are so right in your remarks.

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      1. Of course I’m referring to the manner in which I see you repeatedly (as you’ve described other challenging situations) taken the time to give your husband choices in ways that accomplish reaching the goal that is needed. This is not easy to do.

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  2. What a great story and a perfect solution.
    With dad it was golf. From playing almost every day even when mobility problems meant he resorted to using a buggy, he gradually gave up. In winter it was too cold – he was waiting for spring – then it was too wet and the ground wasn’t good. Sometimes he’d go to the golf club and watch others play but eventually his interest in participating disappeared. However, he still loved watching it on television. I learned more about golf than I ever wanted to! Now, I’m wondering what happened to his golf clubs. Bet the step monster sold them.

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    1. Thanks Mary. When a person has something he/she is particularly passionate about, the gradual turning away is particularly painful to witness. I don’t know if Ralph was secretly as upset as I was when he made those excuses not to fish. He seemed simply less compelled. It is nice to think of your dad watching the golf on tv, still engaged.

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  3. OMG, this really hit home. My husband has not been officially diagnosed with any cognitive impairment, but he has had a boat our entire married lives, went sailing often while I stayed home with toddlers, and now we live on a farm about 20 miles from the boat. We have had our current boat for about 8 years, and been paying for a slip. The problem is, we have only had it in the water 4 of those 8 years, due to the summer flying by, and him not finding time to get it in the water, even though he has been retired most of those years.. And when we do have it in the water, it is always too windy, or not windy enough, or too hot, or too cold. What a lovely idea to give it to a relative. This is not the time now, but I can see in a year or two, one of our sons would love to get it, and would use it for family outings. THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU for your blog. Just reading your similar struggles is such a boost for me. I too, want to keep his dignity in tact, but there are so many things that he needs to let go of and deal with. You give me hope. God bless you. And Lord, help us!

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    1. Oh Karen, we are in the same ‘boat’ (pun unavoidable). After years of wishing he wouldn’t disappear on the boat, I spent the last four years wishing he still wanted to use the darn thing. I would never have believed Ralph would give it up as easily as he has, but I think it is because I waited so long and then let him talk it through over and over and over until the idea belonged more to him than me.

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  4. Great way to save face and get the boat in the hands of someone who will love and appreciate it. It’s a tough problem, how to help a partner “downsize” without invoking the main reason, which is for some people particularly humiliating. Thanks for sharing this!

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    1. Thanks. There will be more downsizes coming. Before each occurs, I think it will be impossible, but when the time comes, Ralph seems ready to accept, i.e. he has no interest in driving now except on his three or four safe routes. The trick is timing a transition as well as avoiding humiliation not to mention a battle.

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  5. A sweet story. The P.S. is a sure sign of all that is still Ralph.

    Neil’s thing is biking, and he still bikes to one place alone and for short rides with others. I believe he will give it up before he gets hurt or badly lost. Some other spouses of MCIers were appalled that he was still biking, but I have been reluctant to even suggest he give up the only activity other than walking the dog that he does on his own initiative and enjoys so much.

    I read today in a FAST staging system that people at Neil’s level of this disease operate at the age of a 12 year old. I have referred to him as an amiable teenager, but I do believe he is beyond 12.

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    1. You’ve set me to comparing Ralph now to my sons as teens. Twelve makes sense because once my sons got a little into their teens they were more angst ridden and rebellious. What remains Ralph is his sense of humor. What is changing is his ability to follow conversations more than a sentence or two in. Thanks for commenting.

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